Editors’ picks for 2015 ‘Islamic State: dealing with an atomised, resurgent terrorist threat’
6 Jan 2016|

Islamic State: dealing with an atomised, resurgent terrorist threat

Originally published 28 July 2015. Picked by David Lang.

In a recent post, I argued that the western strategy against ISIS is failing and described the group as a state-like entity destabilising the greater Middle East, embedded within a loose ‘Internationale’ that presents a global terrorism and subversion threat. In this interpretation, ISIS isn’t a traditional terrorist group, but a state-building enterprise using terror (alongside open warfare, civil governance, and economic tools) to further an aggressive, expansionist agenda. A future post will return to that side of the Islamic State; this one will address the terrorist aspect.

For three years, from the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 until the fall of Mosul in June 2014, some US politicians pushed a narrative of counterterrorism success, reflected in a drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading from behind in Libya, and ‘winding down’ (in President Obama’s phrase) the War on Terrorism. According to this narrative, Core al-Qaeda, the Pakistan-based group around bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been decimated by drone strikes, special operations, financial interdiction and intelligence penetration. AQ franchises—notably al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—still targeted the West, and ‘home-grown’ extremism remained, but terrorism was down since the early post-9/11 period, when jihadists killed hundreds in Bali, Madrid and London.

The view among counterterrorism professionals was darker: drone strikes had indeed suppressed Core AQ, but regional franchises had filled the gap. Drones had also radicalised many Pakistanis, contributing to attacks from Mumbai to New York and rejuvenating terrorist networks, as younger, more radical, combat-experienced leaders replaced those killed. Withdrawal from Iraq let ISIS regenerate, while in Afghanistan the Taliban remained resilient, waiting to re-emerge once coalition forces left. ‘Light-footprint’ military assistance had failed to weaken AQAP, al-Shabaab, or Boko Haram, while Gaddafi’s fall unleashed jihadists in Libya and triggered a flood of weapons across the region, part of a wave of unrest including horrendous conflict in Syria, resurgent violence in Iraq, civil war in Yemen, and instability throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The net result, far from reducing risk, was increased terrorism threat.

Massive connectivity growth over the past decade, including expanded mobile and internet access and an explosion of social media in developing, conflict-affected countries like Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Nigeria (which had 30,000 mobile phones in 2000, but 113 million by 2012) let extremists reach diasporas and target individuals in western countries, creating new pathways of ‘remote radicalisation’. Network disruption—detecting and breaking up terrorist plots—proved less effective against loose, atomised groupings of individuals acting spontaneously against targets of opportunity.

Simultaneously, terrorists adapted to post-9/11 security measures, and ‘expeditionary’ plots (where operatives cross borders to attack a pre-selected target) now coexisted with ‘guerrilla’ terrorism, where facilitators use social media to train, organise and motivate attackers within a target country. Mass surveillance failed to prevent the Boston, Woolwich or Fort Hood attacks. Likewise, a string of ‘foiled’ plots (several involving alleged entrapment or provocation by law enforcement) put many hapless losers—and a few genuine extremists—behind bars, without addressing remotely-radicalised ‘single shooters,’ who are far harder to detect ahead of time.

The rise of ISIS ended this complacency, but the anxiety that replaced it obscures the fact that ISIS isn’t the only threat. AQ franchises and allies like Shabaab in Somalia, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Lashkar e-Tayyiba in Pakistan, a string of African, Asian and Europe-based groups, and Core AQ itself maintain the capability and intent to attack, while non-jihadist groups (including far right- and left-wing extremists, ethnic supremacists and separatist militias) threaten many countries. How, then, should we counter this resurgent, atomised terrorism threat? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Plan for persistent conflict. One cause of past complacency was wishful thinking by policymakers who wanted desperately to end the War on Terrorism and return to ‘normal’. This is fantasy. We live in an era of persistent instability, renewed great-power confrontation and state and non-state conflict: the decade before 9/11 was the anomaly, this is the new normal. Thus, counterterrorism measures need to be cheap, non-intrusive, and agile enough to be sustainable (in financial and political terms) for the long haul.
  1. Don’t equate national security with counterterrorism. The ‘War on Terrorism’ made AQ the dominant threat, prompting governments to structure policy and capability around counterterrorism. We focused narrowly on one threat, and on one subset (AQ leaders) within that threat, and were surprised when killing and capturing them didn’t bring increased security. This time, we need to frame counterterrorism within a broader strategy that includes state-on-state conflict and non-traditional challenges like climate change, urban overstretch and mass migration.
  1. Get a grip. Attacks by single shooters, alongside ISIS mastery of online propaganda, inflate the group’s influence, letting it claim credit for every lunatic with an ISIS flag and a Twitter account. The resulting moral panic risks the destruction (through mass surveillance, pre-emptive detention, or suspension of civil liberties) of the freedoms that define our society. We need to carefully calibrate responses to avoid self-defeating overreactions to terrorism.
  1. Stop orientalising Muslims. After 9/11 several governments, including Australia’s, set up committees of notables as consultative panels or interlocutors with Muslim communities. This seemed a good idea at the time, but it put unelected middlemen between governments and communities. The resulting policies, in which government-endorsed ‘elders’ were expected to police young people’s behaviour, doubly alienated youth who felt distrusted, excluded from wider society, and kept down by unrepresentative, conservative elites in their own communities, making them paradoxically more likely to turn to radicalism. Dealing with ethnic and economic exclusion, organised crime, and internal violence in immigrant communities is critical to counterterrorism law enforcement; but we need to do this without treating citizens who happen to be Muslim differently from others.
  1. Focus on resiliency. We need to move beyond detect–prevent–defeat approaches—which worked against structured terrorist networks but are of limited use against atomised threats—toward resiliency (making populations, urban spaces, and critical infrastructure harder to attack and more self-defending, more redundant and self-healing, and hence better able to bounce back from attacks when they inevitably occur). This is about community preparedness, psychological readiness and consequence management more than protection and prevention.
  1. Targeted social media monitoring. Given the connectivity explosion, it’s no surprise that the social media profile of today’s terrorists is higher, and the average age significantly lower, than earlier generations. Rather than broad-based mass surveillance, which has proven politically fraught and operationally ineffective, targeted monitoring and engagement of social media should be central to future counterterrorism strategy, and targeted at a younger age group.
  1. Two-way border security. Throughout history, border agencies’ main focus was on keeping threats out. Today’s unprecedented foreign fighter flows mean that tracking things and people as they leave is equally important, while detecting and handing off threats from border agencies is even more critical. Regional assistance, international collaboration and whole-of-government information sharing (enhanced after the Bali bombing) need to be maintained, but their geographical scope needs to expand to fit the threat.

The ideas here are neither new nor revolutionary. But with continued good performance by Australian law enforcement, border force and intelligence agencies, which have been extremely effective by global standards, such actions will help protect society against most (though clearly not all) terrorist threats.

But there are no perfect solutions, no guarantees, and in an era of persistent conflict Australians need to be prepared for the certainty of future attacks—from remotely radicalised individuals, from organised groups, from ISIS, but also from its competitors and (perhaps one day) its successors.

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